Climate change and global food security are arguably the two most important issues of our era, and they are deeply intertwined. The agriculture industry is the source of about 10% of Canada's total greenhouse gas emissions. It can also be one of the most critical vectors of carbon capture and conservation when managed through efficient processes and technology.
The ultimate goal is a stewardship system that keeps this cycle in balance while preserving the quality and sustainability of our agricultural land.
Thirty years ago, the Government of Saskatchewan realized that an advocate was needed for the province to benefit from the new era of biotechnology. This led to the creation of Ag-West Bio, a member-based not-for-profit that serves as a catalyst and connector for the commercialization of emerging technologies in the agrifood sector. “We interact with many organizations to promote and advocate for good science in agriculture,” says Ag-West Bio President and CEO, Dr. Wilf Keller. “We are about building the agrifood sector in Saskatchewan and beyond.
For Dr. Keller, the changes in agricultural science have been significant. “There are three main areas where science is promising improvement,” he says. “The first is genetics and genomics, which give us tools to breed crops and livestock that are more efficient; the second is digital technology, which allows for smarter decision-making; and the third is smart engineering which makes machinery and fertilizers more amenable to environmental needs.”
The Carbon Cycle: Earth's heartbeat
At the heart of all these efforts is the carbon cycle we all learned about in primary school. The ultimate goal is a stewardship system that keeps this cycle in balance while preserving the quality and sustainability of our agricultural land.
“We ask many things of our ecosystem,” says Dr. Henry Janzen, a research scientist with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada. “It provides our food, our fuel, our water, our air, our livelihoods, wildlife habitat, and aesthetic appeal. What we are trying to do as researchers, as farmers, and as a society, is maintain that ecosystem in a condition that will serve us — and those who come after us.”
If the land is to remember us kindly, we must look to the lessons of the past while embracing the opportunities of the future, Dr. Janzen emphasizes. “We all have a part to play in ensuring the continuity of these ecosystems,” he continues. “We are ephemeral, but the land stays and the soil remembers.”
In Saskatchewan, there are long-term agriculture sustainability experiments that have been running — in some cases, for more than a century — as well as cutting-edge research built on technologies developed in the last decade. Combined, they are helping us find the best path forward for managing the many interlocking gears in the agriculture ecosystem.
Plants, animals, human society: All one ecosystem
Take cattle farming as an example of this reciprocal relationship. As cattle digest their feed, they produce an excess of hydrogen, which their gut biome then converts into methane — a greenhouse gas about 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide. “The focus of the science has been on how we can control these metabolic pathways to push that hydrogen into things other than methane,” explains Dr. Andrew Van Kessel, head of the Department of Animal and Poultry Science at the University of Saskatchewan.
New science like this, combined with ongoing efforts to improve efficiency, is already demonstrating noteworthy gains. “We're using fewer resources: less land, less feed, less fossil fuel, and more efficient animal stock,” Dr. Van Kessel explains. “By increasing efficiency in these ways, the milk and beef industries have reduced their carbon footprint by around 20%.”
That's the sort of progress that will help us tackle climate change while also securing our food supply and encouraging economic growth in the decades to come. And this progress is built by combining the hard-won wisdom of Canadian farmers with the insight and innovation of Canada's top scientists and engineers, in Saskatchewan and across the nation.
This article was first published in MediaPlanet